Friday, September 24, 2010

My Best Fried Chicken - So Far

I love fried chicken, but I have to say, the colonel just doesn’t cut it. If I’m going to have fried chicken I have to make it myself. This means I don’t make it a lot, because it takes a lot of time and effort to do it right. That’s probably a good thing, since fried chicken is not the healthiest food around. I usually eat it during the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Hanukkah. Rosh Hashana because I often eat it with honey, a traditional food for the holiday and Hanukkah because at that time it is traditional to eat foods cooked in oil.

This recipe has been developed over several years and is still being modified. The most recent addition was a couple weeks ago, the last time I made it. One of the most famous aspects of KFC chicken is the secret recipe behind its seasonings. Likewise, my recipe will not be quite as detailed as some others. For one thing, I don’t KNOW the exact recipe. I change things around quite a bit and never measure spices. What I will tell you is all the ingredients, just not the exact proportions. That way, you still have enough information to make a great fried chicken and, since you will have to choose your own proportions of certain things, you can claim it as your secret mix! I swear, I won’t mind! In any event, this recipe is more about technique than ingredients, so I will walk you through the process.

Fried Chicken (makes 10 pieces)

1 whole chicken - under 2 kilos - small is better (I try to find birds about 1.6 kilos)
½ litre Buttermilk

Spice Blend 1
salt & pepper
fresh chopped garlic
smoked paprika

peanut oil (at least 1 full bottle)
matzoh meal

Spice Blend 2
salt & pepper
smoked paprika
granulated garlic

large cast iron skillet
deep fry thermometer
baking sheet or oven safe dish lined with paper towels
3 large plates/dishes, 1 bowl

Step one is preparing and marinating the chicken. I have already lectured once before on the quality of the chicken you buy. For fried chicken I prefer kosher chickens, because the soaking used in the koshering process allows salt to seep into the flesh, making the birds more flavourful. To disassemble my chicken, I take the legs off first, then split them into thighs and drumsticks. Then I cut down each side of the backbone to remove the back, leaving the whole breast. Using a cleaver, I chop through the keel bone (the big thick bone running down the centre of the breast), then split each side of the breast in two approximately equal chunks. Then I remove the wings (I have cooked these still attached to the top piece of breast before, but this way makes for more even cooking). This is a total of 10 pieces. Sprinkle the first set of spices on the chicken and rub them in. Then pour over enough buttermilk to cover, and leave the chicken in the fridge to marinate for at least 4 hours (overnight is better).

You may have noticed one unfamiliar ingredient on the above list - matzoh meal. Matzoh is Jewish unleavened bread, similar to a cracker. You can buy matzoh meal in the grocery stores if your area has even a small Jewish population, but I prefer to make it myself. This is because matzos are mostly eaten during Passover, one week of the year, resulting in half-empty boxes of matzos on a top shelf gradually getting stale. Simply take several sheets of matzoh, put them in a food processor, and process for about 2 minutes, or until almost the consistency of flour. There should still be some small pieces mixed in with the finely ground parts. This is good for texture.

When you are almost ready to start frying, set up your kitchen for deep frying. Most people try to dissuade home cooks from frying in anything but a home electric deep fryer. Usually they are the best tools for frying, but not this time. For one thing, frying chicken requires more width than a home deep fryer can provide. Second, as the chicken does not have to be fully submerged in oil, you can use less oil if you cook in a skillet. Finally, frying chicken releases more debris into the oil than other frying. This means your deep fryer will be a nightmare to clean afterwards. For fried chicken, I recommend a large wide cast iron skillet. I would not recommend a lightweight pot for this. The only difficulty with the skillet is regulating the frying temperature, very important for this recipe. Without the automatic temperature control of a home deep fryer, you will need a deep fry thermometer. Add approximately 2 inches of oil into the skillet and heat it on medium to medium-high heat, until you reach a temperature of 325-330 degrees F and preheat the oven to no higher than 200 degrees. If it can be set lower, like 150, even better. Meanwhile, assemble your breading station. Set out 3 large plates and 1 bowl. Fill the first plate with flour and add some of the second set of seasonings. In the bowl, crack 2-3 eggs, add brandy and beat lightly. Fill the second plate with a mix of flour and the matzoh meal, and add more of the seasoning mix. This mix should be more heavily seasoned than the first. Have the third plate ready to hold the breaded pieces of chicken. Line a baking sheet or oven safe dish with paper towels for holding the cooked chicken in the warm oven (don’t worry - the oven will not be hot enough to create a fire hazard).

When you are almost ready to fry, take the chicken pieces out of the buttermilk and dry them carefully. Only bread a maximum of three large or four small pieces at a time, since the fryer will not take more than that at one time. Coat the chicken in the flour, then dip in the egg mixture, then coat in the matzoh meal - flour blend and place on the final plate to wait for the fryer to be ready. When the oil reaches 330 degrees, carefully drop the chicken into the oil. The temperature will drop fairly quickly at this point. After it drops, it will begin to rise, but not to the original temperature. You are aiming for a steady temperature of 300 degrees. Fry 10 minutes per side, turning only once. If you are unsure about doneness use a meat thermometer to check (155 degrees F in the breast, 170 degrees F in the dark meat - I am undershooting because I don’t want them to overcook in the oven).

When done, drain on paper towels and keep warm in the oven while frying the next batch. I can promise you the kitchen will get messy. Bread the next batch of chicken while the previous batch is cooking on the second side (you still have 10 minutes). Just watch your hands often. Fried chicken is very good with a honey-based dipping sauce. I like to keep it simple. Warmed liquid honey alone is quite good, but sometimes I will infuse it with an herb or a spice. Thyme is a good choice.

As a side dish, I usually make mashed potatoes. Since buttermilk is usually available in 1 litre cartons, you will probably have some left over after marinating the chicken. Use this in place of milk in the potatoes. I simply boil or steam potatoes, either skin on or skin off, until tender. Then I drain and add a fairly large amount of butter and mash it into the potatoes. Then I add milk or buttermilk, salt, pepper and other seasonings. Nutmeg is a very good spice to add. It is best to heat the milk before adding it, but I have skipped this step before and still got a good product.

A final note: Most of my recipes make very good leftovers. Fried chicken does not work so well. Once the chicken is cooled down, reheating it results in a dramatic reduction in quality. The best results are probably to reheat in the oven, but the crust will not cling to the meat the way it should have when the chicken was freshly made. Also, the breast meat tends to dry out a great deal.

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